The woman in Bobby Rogers’ photograph doesn’t wear a crown. She doesn’t need to. Standing tall in gilded fabric and a gold necklace, it’s clear she’s royalty.
“I wanted to show not the suffering of the black people but the excellence,” Rogers said.
The Minneapolis-based visual artist does that by capturing black models in noble poses, styling them in regalia against vibrant backdrops. “Historically, black people have always been subjugated,” he said. By centering black men and women in beautiful, stately portraits, “I’m trying to help people rid themselves of interracial prejudices and see themselves as magnificent beings.”
The resulting 10 images make up Rogers’ first solo show, opening Friday at Public Functionary gallery in Minneapolis. Its title, “The Blacker the Berry,” nods to both a 1920s novel that was a marker of the Harlem Renaissance and a 2015 song by Kendrick Lamar — hinting at the breadth of Rogers’ influences.
History and hip-hop. Futurism and fashion.
Dressed stylishly in a slim camel coat, baseball cap and black frames, Rogers, 25, talked this week at a coffee shop about the exhibit, which builds on past portrait work aimed at capturing the complexity of race and identity.
Earlier this year, his series of black, Muslim people staring into the camera went viral with the help of the #BeingBlackandMuslim hashtag. With “Don’t Touch My Crown,” a series he posted on Instagram and Twitter, he explored the beauty of black hair, inspired by a Solange song.
His photographs also popped up in a summer Public Functionary show about the power of the black barbershop and “We the People,” the current group exhibition at the Minnesota Museum of American Art.
For this solo show, Rogers had planned to gather those disparate works as a collection. Had the exhibit opened in June — the initial plan — “it would have been a completely different show,” he said. But when, last summer, he photographed his friend sitting for a portrait before a blue backdrop, “it all clicked.” He knew immediately this was the direction he wanted to go.
The prints are almost life-size — 3 by 4 feet — making the viewer look up at them. They feel like documents, as centuries-old portraits do, yet they’re mystical. The models’ eyes are cloudy white, pupils swapped out for milky, faceted jewels. Rogers creates that look with contacts and a bit of post-production magic.
“I wanted to figure out a way to show the spirit of the piece,” he said, “not this specific person.”
Growing up in Minneapolis, Rogers taught himself to illustrate by buying Pokémon cards and spending hours drawing them. He studied illustration at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, centering much of his work in fashion. It wasn’t until months after graduating in 2014 that he took up photography. He knew little about photography, a lot about editing. But the form had always moved him.
“I think I had more photographers in my Rolodex of creatives I looked up to than illustrators,” he said.
His first photographs still circulate today: A black woman, wrapping herself in stark white fabric, poses with gold symbols painted on her skin. Broke and hopeful, Rogers brought a few of the large prints to MCAD’s massive annual art sale. The college’s president, Jay Coogan, bought one.
“It made me feel good about the direction I was going,” Rogers said, laughing.
Because of his artistic training, Public Functionary curator Tricia Heuring sees him as “a painter or illustrator who is working with photography as a medium,” she said. “Especially the way that he positions his subjects, the way he stages the photographs.
“To me it’s like painting with photography, in a way.”
As he worked on these portraits, Rogers explored the halls of the Minneapolis Institute of Art. He thought about 19th-century methods of photography, tintype images made in formal studios. He studied a 2016 fashion campaign for Alexander McQueen, its look dubbed “regal punk” by one publication, its suited models stiff with importance.
Rogers shot the series in the living room of his Minneapolis apartment. His models are creative friends and muses, including Somali performance artist Ifrah Mansour. Rogers styled each portrait, picking out the fabrics and the jewelry he vividly pictured in his mind and then sketched in his notebook.
“It’s a privilege to be an artist because you get to imagine things and build these complex universes,” he said. “You’re bringing it out of your mind and inviting other people to share in that thought with you.”
With this show, Rogers is “changing history — changing the future, in a way — through imagery,” Heuring said, “because images are everything right now. We’re so flooded with imagery. He’s trying to figure out a contemporary sort of activism in art.”
Rogers considers himself an activist, making work to “create some sort of upward trajectory toward liberation, toward freedom and justice for people of color.”
He paused. “I didn’t always think that way at all,” he continued.
But it became more apparent as he delved deeper into the history of African cultures, before and after Africans were sold into slavery. Histories such as Mansa Musa I of Mali, a 14th-century African king whom historians have called the richest person of all time. Books such as “Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas.”
History makes clear that “African civilizations were empires,” not primitive societies, he said. “You come from people who ruled empires.”
With this show, like his other work, Rogers is trying to lend people his eyes, showing them how he pictures his fellow black people. Their beauty, their power.
“I’m trying to get people to see themselves again,” he said, “and not trap themselves in this prejudice they take from outside voices.”
Bobby Rogers: “The Blacker the Berry”
When: Opening reception 7p.m. Friday. Runs through Nov. 25.
Where: Public Functionary, 1400 12th Av. NE., Mpls.